Friday, February 5, 2010

Chicken with Cashew Nuts

No doubt because of the high price of cashews, most Chinese restaurants drown this dish in celery. The only fix I could find was to learn how to make it myself.

(serves two parents and two children)

The Chicken
2 boneless chicken breasts (about 1 lb)
1 egg white
1 Tbs cornstarch
kosher salt

The Sauce
3 Tbs hoisin sauce
3 Tbs rice wine (or dry sherry)

The Rest
3 cloves garlic
1 red bell pepper
3 scallions
6 oz cashews
3 Tbs peanut oil
2 tsp sesame oil

1. Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces. Place in a bowl and add the egg white, cornstarch, and a large pinch of salt. Mix thoroughly so that the chicken becomes well coated. Set aside.

2. In a small bowl, combine the hoisin sauce and rice wine. Set aside.

3. Peel and coarsely chop the garlic. Julienne the red pepper. Trim the scallions and cut into one-inch lengths (both white and green parts).

4. Heat a wok (or a heavy skillet) over a high flame. Dry-fry the cashews until toasted, about 1 minute. Stir often to avoid scorching. Remove and set aside.

5. Add 2 tablespoons peanut oil to the wok. When the oil just begins to smoke, add the garlic and stir-fry until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the chicken and red pepper, stir-frying until the chicken is nearly cooked through, about 2 minutes. Remove and set aside.

6. Add the remaining tablespoon of peanut oil to the wok. Wait for the oil to heat, then drop the sauce into it. Stir. After the sauce has thickened a little (about 30 seconds), return the chicken and red pepper to the wok. Stir to combine.

7. Add the cashews, scallions, and sesame oil. Continue to cook until the scallions wilt slightly, about another minute. Serve over rice.

• In Chinese cooking, the technique of coating meat with cornstarch (usually as a prelude to stir-frying) is called velveting. I find that the easiest way to do this is to mix the ingredients with my fingers. It’s a gooey delight.

• When I first began making this dish, I simply added the sauce at the end. Then my friend Michael Chesloff, an expert on Chinese regional cooking, told me that the proper way to "build" the sauce was to use a method called gong bao, which I have since adopted. The term refers to the way the hoisin sauce “explodes” when added to the hot oil.

• If you like your food a little spicy, this dish benefits from the addition of a few dried red chile peppers. Add them before the garlic to flavor the oil. Remove after they blacken, about 1 minute.

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